You Do You (And Let Me Help) - Surf Week


By Sophia Polin

Photo courtesy of Chris McKelvey.

With great talent comes great responsibility. And, if you’re lucky, a profit.

Chris McKelvey is one of the lucky ones. She’s a California-based clothing designer and seamstress specializing in leotards, swimsuits, and other active wear for children. McKelvey began crafting and selling original designs when she was a teenager. At age 16, she identified her niche market and started a small business making custom business apparel to plus-sized women.

“Originally I began sewing for large women when that size [of] clothing was not readily available, but as I had children, my love of sewing became geared toward them,” McKelvey tells BTR.

As her eldest daughter became involved in dance and gymnastics, the designer’s interests duly switched towards active-wear, reasoning she could create cheaper, higher-quality products than the national brands.

Thus began LeoLines, McKelvey’s web-based clothing company. At first she sold primarily to parents in her circle who were already familiar with her products. Then, in January 2012, a parent she didn’t know contacted her with a new type of request. The message came from the mother of a male-to-female transgender child inquiring whether McKelvey could modify a bathing suit bottom for her daughter.

Pleased with the entailing results, the client was soon back with more requests. “She asked if I could possibly make a pair of underwear that might mask the male genitals,” McKelvey says. “I made a sample pair and sent them to the client for her daughter to try.”

After a few adjustments, they had a working pair. A few months later, McKelvey posted a listing for the underwear on the LeoLines site “to see how they would sell.” The orders started coming in immediately. Apparently the original client raved about the designer’s craftsmanship on a closed trans Facebook group.

Members of the community were lining up to try the underwear, which is now her signature item. “Clients have asked me to alter my leotards and dancewear, but I just remind them that all they need do is buy the underwear and they can put them under any clothing they purchase,” she tells BTR.

Custom clothing for gender nonconforming adults recently became more widespread. Consider, for instance, The New York Times featuring Brooklyn-based Bindle and Keep’s custom suits for transgender styles last Fall. Adults are gaining more flexibility over their presentation as well as access to platforms on which to discuss and tailor their lifestyles.

Obviously, trans children are at a disadvantage. Even the most self-aware of the youth are often denied the opportunity and resources to express gender uninhibitedly. McKelvey’s line of intimates for gender nonconforming children is, at this point, rare and unique. It’s no surprise her products are in such high demand.

“There was a weekend about six weeks ago that someone shared my Etsy site on their Tumblr… since then my transgender business is nearly 80 percent of my total business, which has increased 100 percent.”

McKelvey also started making trans products in adult sizes and styles. She estimates that her trans business is split 50-50 between children and adults. When we asked about future LeoLines plans, she hopes to dedicate a store to “transgender items” and maintain her active wear shop separately. Operating two departments will allow her room for expansion, if she needs it. If business keeps up at its present rate, she will likely make the move.

For now, she is pleased with her contributions.

“I’m so happy that I’ve been able to help the trans community in a small way,” McKelvey says, “especially the parents of young children that don’t have a mainstream product… to help [them] at the beginning of their journey.”